Finally Some Good News: Dr. J Has His Day On Court!

Tomorrow is the induction of my grandfather, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. If you have the Tennis Channel on cable you can check it out. Tennis.Com has rerun an article that I wrote several years ago about Dr. J’s life and my relationship with him. Check out this excerpt and follow the link below:

A Whirlwind Event

Father and GrandfatherBy Julian Johnson
Photos Courtesy of Julian Johnson

Robert W. Johnson Jr. (Left) & Dr. Robert W. Johnson on his court in Lynchburg, VA

Dr. J didn’t like me and looking back, I can’t blame him. He’d begun the American Tennis Association’s Junior Development Program back in the late 1940s to train talented black players. Before Nick Bollettieri and the other tennis academies of our day, there was a small-town doctor with a homemade court who, as a hobby, coached several generations of the best black tennis players this country ever produced. His goal was to create tennis champions who could break down the segregated doors of the country club tennis set. He did just that. I had my own prepubescent plans, which is why Dr. J and I didn’t see eye to eye. My idea of fun didn’t include a pro tennis career or a boot camp training regimen, at least, not as a toddler.

When Dr. J, a.k.a. Robert Walter ‘Whirlwind’ Johnson, began inviting black youth from across the nation to spend summers at his tennis court-equipped house in Lynchburg, Va., who knew that he would change the tennis world? I was only a rumor in the reproductive organs of my parents when Dr. J began rousting kids out of bed at 6:30 a.m. to do sit-ups, push-ups, and crosscourt/down the line drills. The concussive sound of tennis balls striking taut gut strings sometimes woke up the roosters and angry neighbors.

Tennis was Jim Crowed until the 50s, meaning that black athletes from earlier generations were barred from playing in United States Lawn Tennis Association tournaments, including any national championship events. In response to this exclusion, the American Tennis Association was born in 1916, the black equivalent of the USLTA. It provided tennis tournaments and social interaction for black players. The ATA would also provide a political crow bar that would, through the backdoor agitation of its executive officers, eventually help black players gain entry to white tournaments.

My grandfather was a race man, dedicated to social justice. His tennis-related activism came later. At Lincoln University, he became a star running back known for eluding would-be tacklers by spinning and moving like a ‘whirlwind.’ He was a black All-American, but his teams faced ‘colored only’ competition. He was the first in his family to attend college and he wore that distinction with pride, but there was a bitter aftertaste; like most black people with any pride, young Robert wanted the opportunity to play against all comers. That dream would be forever deferred.

Every summer, my dad would drive us from inner city Washington, D.C., to country-fied Lynchburg to stay at Dr. J’s big white wooden house on the corner of 14th and Pierce Streets. My brothers and I would play hide and seek, ripping through the rows of plush rose bushes. We’d play on the jungle gym and toss our kiddie football over and through the lush trees that dotted the yard. We’d stare in awe at the older boys and girls like Robert Binns, Luis Glass, or Bonnie Logan sweating grits and slapping tennis balls hour upon interminable hour. It in no way looked fun.

Whirlwind 2When my dad started force-feeding us tennis in the mid 1960s, most of us kids fell in line and embraced the family tradition. Not me. I hated tennis, especially the monotony of it. I wanted to run free and play. We had to stand single file on a horrid red clay court on D.C.’s sauna summer days, toting wooden rackets that felt like table legs, while my dad meticulously corrected each of our strokes—that could take a cat’s life because there were five of us. My brains scrambled as I waited impatiently for Jolynn, Eileen, Bobby, and my younger brother, Lange, to hit backhands and forehands to my dad’s exacting specifications. Drowsy and bored, I’d barely listen to the general’s instructions and spray shots all over the court when my turn came. Thank God there were four buffers between his unwanted coaching attentions and me.

Left to right – Robert W. Johnson III, Dr. Johnson, Juan Farrow, National Boy’s 12 Championships, Chattanooga, TN

After undergrad, my grandfather worked odd jobs for four years—coaching football and baseball and handling baggage at Grand Central Station in New York—in order to pay for med school. Funds in hand, he enrolled at Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., and then completed his residency at Prairie View Hospital in Prairie View, Texas. It was there that Dr. J got hooked on tennis.

Concerned about the fatty tissue buildup around his enlarged athlete’s heart, tennis seemed like the perfect marriage of physical exertion and intellectual stimulation. It was also a sport one could play for life. Dr. J’s progress was slow. Hitting a hole in football was very different than threading a forehand past a net rusher while keeping that little white ball between the lines. Complicating matters at the start, few players at Prairie View would hit with him, but he found a regular pity partner in Agnes Lawson. He fed his tennis addiction by devouring stacks of tennis manuals and playing when he could. Eventually he became a serviceable doubles player, winning several ATA mixed doubles titles.

Dr. J began inviting folks he met through the ATA tournament circuit to spend weekends at his Lynchburg home. These informal tennis gatherings eventually became an annual tennis tournament. He spent a grand or two each year on the black professionals who’d bunk on Pierce Street and inhale the lavish spread. They’d sip booze, gorge on food, then play cards until the wee hours in his basement lounge with the neon appointed bar. The next day, they’d play ‘rise & fly’ into the night under the ‘lights bound to telephone poles’ Doc had rigged. Dr. J saw his excessive spending on these tournaments as a sidetrack to his budding mission. What he really craved was the opportunity to nurture young black talent that could compete for national or international titles.

Growing up, we grandkids had Dr. J’s legacy ringing in our ears. ‘Althea’ and ‘Arthur,’ were the names of black superheroes; Wimbledon and the U.S. Open were destinations like Oz, and also white dragons that our heroes slayed. Dr. J had plucked and helped ripen black fruit that others thought spoiled. This was our inheritance and our anvil. How could we measure up to that—to him? My response was not to try. I didn’t care. We’d all started playing tournaments before our heads peeked above the net. I was next to the baby, so my older brother and two sisters were ranked players before I’d spun a racket to determine serve. Echoes of Althea or Arthur were never conjured by my play.

Whirlwind 3During a 10-and-under match at EC Glass High School in Lynchburg, I became confused about playing a let; when my opponent served, I let it bounce by me and glanced over at Dr. J, as if to say, “Is that what I’m supposed to do?” He pursed his lips like a trumpeter and casually turned away from his bad seedling. Soon, he was off to watch more promising charges.

Left to right – Lange Johnson, Arthur Ashe, the author, Julian Johnson, at the Washington Star Tennis Classic, Washington, DC

Back in 1946, Dr. J and Dr. Hubert Eaton sat in the bleachers watching a young woman playing the finals of the ATA Women’s Championships at Wilberforce, Ohio. She was very fluid, played like a man most folks said. She was as inconsistent as she was physically gifted, but flashed enough potential to intrigue both men. Dr. J turned to his buddy and said, “I wish there was something we could do for that girl.” On the spot, they set about planning Althea Gibson’s next four years and her life’s trajectory.

She slouched off the court that day defeated, but the two men offered her a blueprint for her future. The execution: She lived with Dr. Eaton’s family in Wilmington, N.C., during the school year, resuming the education she’d abandoned after the seventh grade. She practiced with Dr. Eaton and his cronies on his backyard tennis court. Althea had been a pool hall denizen on the streets of Harlem so intensive behavior and character modification was required; Mrs. Eaton spearheaded that effort. During summer break, she left for Lynchburg and Dr. J’s; she played against the college players Doc had begun to surround himself with, a group that would become the junior development team several  years later. The two doctors provided an overarching safety net and a foundation for Althea’s metamorphosis.

Monday through Thursday, Doc’s players would drill and play practice sets on his clay court. Then they’d load up the big, silver Olds and hightail it to the ATA tournament in Richmond, Greensboro, Washington, Baltimore, or Philly. They’d arrive in the early morning with just enough time to collapse on the couch of some local black tennis family Dr. J had hustled for a weekend crash pad. Dr. J’s car always brought home trophies; in fact, Althea never lost another ATA singles match, winning thirteen tournaments that first summer of 1947. She also carried Dr. J to several ATA National Mixed doubles titles. In 1956, 10 years after the two doctors had conspired to help Althea reach her potential. She was the number one in the world the next two years (1957-58) and held aloft the champion¹s plate at Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills, she’d broken the color barrier in 1950.

A Whirlwind Event

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